One of my friends sometimes mentions that the problem he has with people believing in reincarnation is that they always think that they were someone really special. Where, he asks, are all the normal people? Not everyone could have been Cleopatra!
He has a point. I have never seen reincarnation that way, and I didn't realize how that does seem to be the way many take it. Maybe that is us tapping into a desire to be special, to be more than our simple selves.
But we are already special. In my beliefs, we are God. There's nothing more special than that!
I don't dwell much on what I may have been in a past life. It is enough for me to know that the choices I made in the past have led me to this life. Every challenge I face here is indicative of the things my soul still needs to learn.
Reincarnation is never a punishment. It's not that you get reborn as a cockroach because you were a nasty person. Every birth is the chance to learn things that will help your soul move toward the goal of unity with God. And if you miss the lesson, make the wrong choice, you'll keep getting chances to get it right. They say that the lessons will keep getting more and more intense, which is why some people have great difficulties to overcome in life. They may have missed the smaller version of that lesson.
Or maybe there's another reason. It is not for us to know someone else's spiritual journey. There was a great guru who got cancer,and his disciples asked him why he didn't just cure his cancer, since he was a very accomplished holy man. He told them that it was part of his karma to experience that pain.
From the time I was a child I have kept my eyes open to what lessons I might be here to learn in this lifetime. I'm rather ambitious and I really want to make good progress in this short life. (According to tradition, in the womb we make promises to find our way back to God. I take promises very seriously, even ones I don't remember making!).
I don't put much stock in past life regression techniques. Partly because we are not really meant to remember our past lives (if we were then we would). Dwelling on the past can really hurt our forward momentum. And partly because I don't believe that people can know their past lives unless they are extremely accomplished holy men/women. But there are plenty of people who do believe in these techniques and that is fine. Everyone has his own journey to take.
My only thoughts about my past lives are thinking about the personality I had when I was born and the behaviors that were natural in me. I vaguely wonder what may have happened to me that made me afraid of this thing or that thing. But my focus is on moving forward.
There are disagreements about how easy it is to get a human embodiment. In my tradition it is very rare. You really have to earn it. This is because our tradition says that a human embodiment is the only one from which you can become aware of your true self and that is the goal of life. Having a human life is a great honor and should not be squandered. That's what I've been told.
Sometimes you see people who behave in such a base and almost animalistic way. My Dad always told me that these people were probably new to human embodiments and were used to being animals. It takes time to adjust.
Karma plays a big role in all of this. I want to discuss karma for a moment because it is a word that gets slightly misused. It actually means "action." Nothing more. Our karma is our action. The consequences of those actions are seeds in our souls that manifest later in this life or in next lives. Those seeds are called sanskara. It is our sanskara that shapes our fate.
Sometimes people have advised that the way to break the cycle of birth and death and to free ourselves from sanskara is to stop action altogether. But in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna advises that it is not possible to stop all action. Our bodies will still breathe and metabolize, etc. He says that it is possible to stop sanskara from attaching to our karma. That way we can die cleanly, without leftover seeds to be expressed. The way to do this is to perform action as needed, in the moment, with no attachment to the outcome. Doing the right thing without the desire or need for praise or other good things to come to us. Now that could take several lifetimes of practice!
Sometimes people think that those believe in reincarnation are just afraid to die and latching onto any idea that will let them think they won't die. My teachers taught me that there is a reason why people are so afraid to die. Some part of us knows that we are immortal. Our bodies are just instruments and we go through lots of them, but there is a soul that is who we really are and that never dies.
Reincarnation could go on and on forever. Most Hindu traditions teach that at some point everyone will attain the goal of unity with God. Why would we want to do that?
For all the Dr. Who fans, I think one of the episodes did a nice job showing this. In the Library episode, Donna starts living a life that isn't real. She thinks it's real. She forgets who she really is and what her real life is and goes along with the fake world around her. Only in dreams and corners of her mind she sometimes gets glimpses of her real life. Tradition teaches that this is the same with us. We are living in a dream right now. We're really enjoying it and we think it's real. We're afraid to wake up because we don't know that our real life away from the dream is much, much better.
As one Chinese philosopher put it, "Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man."
I've been told that reincarnation has existed in all the major world religions. There was a rumor that went around my organization that early Christianity had reincarnation, but it was removed at one of the early church councils because it challenged the authority of the church. I have not found any evidence that this is true, but I also haven't looked too hard.
A Jewish friend of mine once attended an interesting talk by a rabbi who claimed that Judaism had reincarnation in it. His argument was a bit of a stretch, but fascinating. He claimed that because the Torah requires people to perform six hundred and some mizvot (good deeds), it is not possible to complete all in one lifetime, so reincarnation must have been assumed.
I don't see any contradiction, anyway, between a belief in reincarnation, and a belief in the classic religions of the book (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). There are many different ways to express a belief in reincarnation. To me it solves one of the fundamental difficulties of our understanding of the world.
Why do bad things happen to good people? I don't mean to say that bad things happen because this person was a bad person in another life and they deserve what they get, not at all. As I said before, things that happen are never a punishment, they are always for the betterment of the soul. There is something to be gained from that experience.
Why do young, innocent children die? They already accomplished what they needed to in this life. With a belief in reincarnation, death is no longer the worst thing that can happen. It just is. It's part of life and nothing important actually ends at death.
How could a just God allow people who die unbaptized or unsaved to go to hell? There is no hell in Hinduism (beyond what we do to ourselves in our lives...our thoughts in many ways create our reality because everything depends on our perspective). There is no proselytizing or converting in Hinduism because there is always another chance. Even if you believe that Hinduism is the only path to God (which most do not believe, as I said previously there is the idea in Hinduism that there are many valid paths to God), in another lifetime you would be born Hindu. Simple as that.
Some people are pessimists and that shows up in laments like, "What have I done in a past life to deserve this?" That, to me, is a misunderstanding of how this works. Focus on what can be gained or learned from whatever difficulty you are going through. It can only make your soul stronger and better.